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Kristof’s incomplete children’s book list

July 5, 2009

I usually enjoy the writing of Nicholas Kristof, the New York times columnist who often uses his space to bring attention to the ongoing genocide in Darfur and the plight of trafficked women in Southeast Asia. So I was excited when I saw that his column this week was a list of the best children’s books; I expected selections that would inspire social-consciousness and empathy among their readers.

What I did not expect is that nearly every book would feature male (and when he is a person, white) protagonist. Out of thirteen suggestions, only one is based on the story of a young girl. Who is the lucky lady? Anne of Green Gables, “one of the strongest and most memorable girls in literature.” And not one of them centers around the story of a person of color.

Some of his other suggestions have great girls in supporting roles: Charlotte’s Web, with beloved Charlotte and Fern as Wilbur’s best protectors and friends, topped the list. The Harry Potter series was also recommended, which features such strong women as Hermione Granger and Ginny Weasley.

So what’s the problem with his suggestions? There’s nothing wrong with any book in particular on his list, but it fails to offer characters that young girls or children of color can immediately relate to. There is something special about picking up a book and connecting immediately with its main character by seeing yourself in that person. While it is not out of the question for girls or children of color to relate to a white boy protagonist, it would be great for children to see themselves, with all of their historical particularities, represented in their books.

See my list after the jump.

Kristof invited his readers to comment on his article with their own additions, so I’ve made my own list to add to his. Not all of them feature girls or people of color, but I hope that they represent a more diverse set of characters:

  1. “Island of the Blue Dolphins” by Scott O’Dell. I vividly remember buying this from our school’s book fair when I was in fourth grade, and then retreating into my room for three days to read, emerging only for meals. This book is based on the true story of a 12-year old Native American girl, Karana, who survived alone on an island for 18 years.
  2. “Tuck Everlasting” by Natalie Babbitt. I was enchanted by Winnie when my mom read this story to me in first grade.
  3. “Number the Stars” and “The Giver” by Lois Lowry. These are two of my absolute favorites from elementary school. I read them countless times between third and fifth grade, and remembering them now makes me want to check them out of the library again. Number the Stars is the story of Danish girl whose family helped her best friend escape from the Nazis in Denmark. And The Giver… just read it, it’s great.
  4. “Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry” by Mildred D. Taylor is the story of Cassie, a black girl growing up in a segregated and oppressive southern community in the 1930s.
  5. “Walk Two Moons” by Sharon Creech. Native American Salamanca Tree Hiddle travels across the country with her grandparents, trying to find her disappeared mother. I don’t remember much about this book except that I loved it.
  6. “From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler” by E. L. Konigsburg. This book-on-tape kept us kids silent for countless car trips, as we listened to the adventures of Claudia and Jamie, two kids who secretly live in the Metropolitan Museum of Art while they try to solve the mystery of the new statue.
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